Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Stephan James says he thought a lot about Kalief Browder as he played the wrongfully incarcerated Fonny in Barry Jenkins' new drama If Beale Street Could Talk.
Browder spent three years in a New York prison without a trial for allegedly stealing a backpack when he was 16. He killed himself in 2015, two years after he was released. He was 22.
"I just saw Fonny as a vessel to speak for Kalief and to speak for so many other young men across this country who are going through the same sort of ordeal," James, 24, told UPI in a recent phone interview, adding Browder's story also helped him understand the mental and physical abuse one might suffer behind bars.
Co-starring KiKi Layne, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry and Michael Beach, the film adaptation of James Baldwin's 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk is a nominee for the Best Drama Golden Globe and was also included in the National Board of Review's Top 10 Films of 2018.
Written and directed by Moonlight Oscar winner Jenkins, Beale Street is set in Harlem and follows Fonny as he is mistakenly accused of raping a stranger.
Certain of Fonny's innocence, his father, pregnant girlfriend Tish and Tish's family work tirelessly to clear his name, despite having little money to mount his defense. The case is further complicated by the corrupt cop who pressures the shattered victim to identify Fonny as her attacker after which she stops cooperating and flees to her native Puerto Rico.
While the film is a work of fiction, it explores real issues many young black men face such as racism, mass incarceration and false imprisonment.
"Those things have an eerie, unfortunate timeliness and resonance in 2018," James said. "Shining light on this sort of story, it meant a lot for me to be a part of it."
Most of the characters maintain a sense of optimism even though this is a "dark, tumultuous" time in their lives, James said.
"There is this light and love and hope that is able to carry them through and it still exists at the end of this film," he said. "It has a way of leaving you broken, but full at the same time."
Known for his work on the TV shows Degrassi and Shots Fired and in the movies Race and Selma, the actor said he is getting better at separating from his real life the disturbing and emotional stuff he has to deal with all day at work.
"I think that is something you take on when you're dealing with a project like this," he said. "You understand the weight and the responsibility and, at times, it's going to be tough to talk about, to think about, to explore. Some scenes are going to be harder to get through than others."
Ultimately, he said, he and his Beale Street castmates frequently reminded each other, "We're just making a movie."
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in theaters Friday.